I Choose to be Happy: A School Shooting Survivor's Triumph over Tragedy
Author of

Missy Jenkins Smith

KASA conference surprise!

I am honored to be giving the “Moment of Inspiration” talk at the Kentucky Association of School Administrators conference on Wednesday, July 16, at 5:30 p.m. I also have a surprise planned for the nearly 1,000 people expected to be in attendance. Stay tuned!! 🙂kasa

Thank you MSU!!

June 18, 2014 - Speaking at the Institute for Future Agricultural Leaders Conference at Murray State University.

June 18, 2014 – Speaking at the Institute for Future Agricultural Leaders Conference at Murray State University.

I had an absolutely wonderful time on June 18 speaking to students in the Hutson School of Agriculture at the Institute for Future Agricultural Leaders Conference at my alma mater, Murray State University. The group was so kind to put a short video of me performing wheelies, something I learned to do in 1998 during my rehabilitation at Cardinal Hill in Lexington. Here is the link to their page and to the video: www.facebook.com/HutsonSchoolofAgriculture

Thank you South Carolina!!

June 16, 2014 - Meeting the wonderful students in South Carolina.

June 16, 2014 – Meeting the wonderful students in South Carolina.

Thank you so much to all of the students and administrators at the South Carolina Farm Bureau Leadership Conference for having me on June 16. I had an absolutely wonderful time meeting all of you and visiting your wonderful state!  I appreciate the warm hospitality and the media coverage. I hope to come back one day soon!!

–Missy 🙂

Newberry, S.C. – Shooting survivor to share story with youth

By Kevin Boozer, Newberry Observer

NEWBERRY — Tragedy transformed Missy Jenkins Smith from a shy 15-year-old into a confident woman who works as a counselor and travels around the country giving speeches.

On Monday, she will bring her story of resilience and hope to youth at a leadership conference provided by the South Carolina Farm Bureau.

In 1997, she and her friends were gathered for prayer in the lobby of Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky. The pop, pop of what she thought was firecrackers and a prank actually was gunfire from a student school shooter.

Smith was shot and paralyzed from the chest down.

Her story, “I Choose to be Happy: A School Shooting Survivor’s Triumph over Tragedy,” shows the shooting did not define her. Instead, it gave her opportunities.

“I was a shy person before this but being able to speak in front of groups is something I am passionate about,” Smith said. “It was an ability I did not know I had as I took something negative and made something positive from it. The first time I spoke was at a middle school in Illinois. I realized then how much the story helped others and me. And the more I spoke, the more confident I became.”

Smith overcame the odds and adversity to attend college, earn a degree in social work, get married and have a family. She chose a degree in social work. For 10 years she’s worked counseling youth in a school setting for at-risk students.

The program helps with goal setting and helps them meet behavior goals.

Her goal as a speaker, counselor, mother and author is to help intervention come to troubled students before a shooting takes place.

“We teach them to learn to make better choices … and really the students I work with often need extra attention and someone to listen to them,” she said. “Every day I use my story. I learned a lot of lessons from it.”

That message will be one she shares Monday.

“My purpose in life was defined at 15. I am so blessed,” she said. “Prior to (the shooting) I lived day to day but (during the rehab and adjustment that followed) I learned it is important to plan and set goals.”

Proactive response

One piece of her talk is proactive. She reminds students to report any violent act and to take warnings and warning signs seriously.

“Bullying was considered a normal thing (back in 1997) but (now I want kids to) learn the need to be empathetic and reinforce the Golden Rule,” she said. “Treat people with respect because the way you treat people at that moment can affect the rest of their lives.”

As she reflected on that day in 1997, she said the 14-year-old shooter, a boy in her band class, was not targeting Christians exclusively, nor did she feel she was specifically targeted. Yet her life was forever changed.

In the months that followed the shooting, she underwent grueling physical therapy and occupational therapy, partly in an in-patient program she called a boot camp. She drew upon encouragement from around the world with some 600 letters and 45 packages arriving in just one day.

“That support helped me see I needed to persist on in making something of myself,” she said.

Choosing happiness

During that time, she hit a low point and then bounced back up. The 15-year-old version of herself who could walk, she said, felt death was impossible, that she was invincible.

“I am blessed to be alive. That bullet missed all major arteries and organs and both sides of my brain. I received a second chance at life,” she said. “There is no such thing as closure but I have had what I needed to get through it.”

Part of what she had was the ability to forgive the shooter, a distinction she makes in her book. Forgiveness is something she did to free herself from the anger.

“I spoke to him at the sentencing. The forgiveness released me. I did not want to be angry at my second chance in life,” she said. “I could stay angry or choose to move on and stay positive. Now I have everything I ever wanted, except the ability to walk.”

She was pregnant when she and her husband, Josh, a gym teacher, football coach and a farmer, agreed she should visit Michael Carneal in prison to hear his side of the story.

He and his lawyers claimed mental illness played a role in the shooting and they claimed bullying did as well.

Though the visit did not bring complete closure, it was one of the tools she used to deal with the aftermath of the shooting.

The tragedy brought publicity and opened doors. She met Bill and Hillary Clinton at a youth forum to talk on violence.

Smith was on Oprah and the Anderson Cooper show. She met Henry Winkler (The Fonz), Martin Short, Janet Reno, Sarah McLachlan and Ben Affleck.

She relied upon her family for support as she completed college, rooming with her twin sister, who was also there when she was shot.

Her sister helped motivate her because Missy wanted to do whatever her sister was doing, albeit with a few modifications along the way.

Protective instincts to make a difference

Now a mother, she has explained her story to her children over time in age appropriate amounts.

As her children got older she shared how someone shot people and they got hurt but she did so while reminding them of ways their schools are safe and that people are protecting them.

Those protective instincts are at the heart of her message, particularly the effort she makes each day to protect her outlook on life and its blessings.

“I wanted to be happy (as a kid) at age 15 I realized happiness is a choice you have to make. People asked then (and ask now) Would I change anything? I say no,” Smith said. “I would be there (and do it all again) because it made me into the person that I am today and gave my life purpose.”

For more on her speaking engagements or to order copies of Smith’s book, visit www.missyjenkinssmith.com/.

Paris, Tenn. – Henry County High School students listen to school shooting survivor Missy Jenkins Smith and how she faces challenges

By Melanie Howard, Post-Intelligencer

Henry County High School students got a lesson in the repercussions of bullying Friday — from a person who suffered the consequences firsthand.

Missy Jenkins Smith was paralyzed from the chest down in December 1997 when she was hit by a bullet during a nationally-publicized school shooting in Kentucky.

Smith was a sophomore at Heath High School near Paducah at the time of the shooting.

She was one of five who were injured in the incident. Three students were killed.

She talked to students about the way she felt that bullying had affected the atmosphere at her school, ultimately ending in the shooting.

She recalled the events of the morning of the shooting.

Smith and a group of friends had just finished a time of prayer in the lobby of the school when a freshman, Michael Carneal, pulled a .22 out of his backpack and began shooting.

At first, Smith said she didn’t know what was happening and thought it must be some sort of prank.

“This can’t be real,” was her thought when she realized a fellow student had been shot in the head.

“My sister hovered over me and begged me to be strong and to please not die,” Smith remembered.

She said she’d had a class with Carneal and had always thought he was a nice guy.

She said she thought he was the last person who would commit such a crime.

She explained students often made fun of Carneal.

Though the boy pretended it didn’t bother him, he seemed to have a change in attitude in the days leading up to the shooting.

Carneal, who is now 30 years old, is serving a 25-year jail sentence.

Smith also talked to students about the challenges she now deals with on a daily basis because of her paralysis.

Along with students at HCHS, Smith spoke to ninth-grade students at Grove School and eighth-graders at Harrelson School on Friday.

Originally posted here.

Southeast Christian Church (Louisville, Ky.) Interview

Paralyzed Paducah shooting victim chooses to be happy

By Ruth Schenk | rschenk@secc.org

The prayer circle stretched around the entire lobby at Heath High School before school on Dec. 1, 1997. Missy Jenkins Smith, 15, held hands with her twin sister Mandy on one side and a friend on the other as senior Ben Strong prayed for friends who were sick, family members, faculty and more global concerns, such as peace on earth.

As they prayed, 14-year-old Michael Carneal came into the lobby with 600 rounds of ammunition, two shotguns, two rifles and a pistol. He chose a .22 Ruger, put in a clip of ammunition, turned off the safety, cocked it and started firing a few seconds after the prayer group said “amen.”
Missy said it sounded like firecrackers on the Fourth of July. She heard nine more pops as friends fell to the floor. Bullets hit her left shoulder and back. She fell, too.

Three teenagers died that day: Kayce Steger, 15, Jessica James, 17, and Nicole Hadley, 14. Five students, including Missy, were wounded.

Missy believes in forgiveness. She doesn’t believe it is easy, but she does believe it is necessary. She believed it on Dec. 1, 1997’the day doctors told her she’d be in a wheelchair the rest of her life.

She believed it through the nitty-gritty reality of paralysis. And she still believed it as she went to prison on July 21, 2007 to meet with Carneal.

Telling the rest of the story

Eleven years after the shooting, Smith has released a book about her life titled I Choose to be Happy. Her goal in writing it with Cincinnati journalist William Croyle is to reach more people with her story. There’s never enough time to go to speak to every group that sends an invitation. And there’s never enough time to answer all the questions.

“The book is another way I can speak to kids about what’s happened and what I’ve learned in the last 11 years,” she said in a phone interview.

Croyle said he learned a lot from Missy.

“When we started this book, we weren’t focused on money or fame,” he said. “It’s a book that can help teens and adults deal with their lives.”

He asked the big questions.

“One of the first questions I asked was about forgiving Michael that day,” Croyle said. “I really hounded her about it. She didn’t have an answer. She just said that is ‘just how I am. This is just what God would want me to do.'”

Croyle’s dream for the book is that it will reach every middle and high school student, as well as adults.
“There are lessons in there for everyone,” he said.

“We forgive you.”

The Paducah shooting was different than many other school shootings. Most of the students in the prayer group recognized Carneal. Missy and Mandy were in band class with him.

“We thought Michael was funny and joked with him,” Missy said. “None of us thought he was odd or dangerous or anything like that.”

Looking back, Missy does not believe the prayer group was an intentional target.

“I think Michael knew we’d be gathered in the lobby, but I don’t believe he had anything against us. He grew up in a good family that took him to church.”

Soon after the shooting, teenagers put a huge banner in the school’s hallway that read, “We forgive you, Michael.” It drew both admiration and criticism.

Missy said she forgave Carneal the same day she was shot.

“It may sound bizarre that a 15-year-old could think that way, but I did. Maybe it stemmed from my baptism less than two years earlier in the eighth grade,” Missy wrote in her book. “That momentous night in front of that congregation had strengthened my faith to the point where, as a teenager, my relationship with God was as strong as it had ever been. Faith hope, love, understanding, charity. I was fortunate, at such a young age, that they were all at the forefront of my life. And so was forgiveness.”

Missy makes it clear that forgiveness doesn’t condone evil. Nor does it exonerate someone from punishment.

“I had every right to be angry at Michael for the rest of my life,” Missy wrote. “He robbed me of my ability to walk, murdered my friends, nearly killed my sister and scarred so many people emotionally.”

Missy said being able to forgive freed her from anger and allowed her to move on with her life.

“I hoped that forgiving him had a positive effect on him,” she said. “I hoped it made Michael think about what he did and made him realize that he hurt some good people who liked him. But the forgiveness was mainly for me.”

Life Lessons

When she speaks to groups, Missy shares how that day changed her life.

“I realized that I’m not invincible,” she said. “I live each day as if it’s my last. We need to stay close to God because we don’t know when that time may come. Three of my closest friends died that morning. When they walked into school to meet with the prayer group, they had no idea their lives would end. As a survivor, I want to do something with my life.”

She believes that everything happens for a reason, that there’s no greater principle to live by than the Golden Rule and that forgiveness is powerful.

Ten years after the shooting, Missy arranged to meet Michael in prison. There were questions she wanted to ask and things she wanted him to know.

She told Carneal how much she and Mandy liked him.

“Both of us, we’ve always liked you and we always thought you were a funny, hilarious, wonderful guy, and we just wanted you to know that,” she said.

She also told him about her injuries and how the shooting changed her life.

“I talked about my rehabilitation, including the several months I spent in the hospital right after the shooting, my first trip to the movies in a wheelchair when people kept bumping into me, wetting my pants when I returned to school-one of the most embarrassing moments of my life-the cathing I have to do, the trouble I had with dating after I was paralyzed, and the fact that, because of what he did to me, I couldn’t feel my baby kicking in my womb.”

They talked about the six letters he wrote to her in 1999, about the bullying he experienced in high school. She asked what she should include in the talks she gives around the country.

Carneal told her to tell kids to talk to somebody if they are having problems and to understand how much a kind word can mean to someone.

Carneal apologized for what he’d done. Missy hoped the meeting helped him, though she believes he should serve out his sentence.

“Until 7:40 a.m. on Dec. 1, 1997, I’d pretty much been walking the same, smooth, level, beautiful trail my entire life without my destination in sight,” Missy wrote. “But a minute later, I faced an enormous obstacle, one that wouldn’t allow me to walk that trail any longer. It’s been a long, arduous detour full of ruts and barriers, but I’ve continued to push forward, refusing to quit and turn back. Because of my persistence and faith, this new route has turned out to be even more scenic than the original.”

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This Week’s Happiness Quote

“Just because you are happy it does not mean that the day is perfect but that you have looked beyond its imperfections."

― Bob Marley


Missy and her co-author, William Croyle, will be happy to accommodate you with interview requests. Please contact Mr. Croyle directly through his e-mail.